Abraham grew through failure ... but not in the way we commonly think. Germany after her disastrous engagement in two world wars grew through through her failure, producing an economic miracle, and yet the German people by and large did not grow in the knowledge of God If anything, Germany continues to move away from her Reformation heritage.
We can grow through our failures, but not necessarily in a God-ward direction. Many people learn from their mistakes, because pain can be a great teacher. But Abraham grew through his failures, and by the pure grace of God he grew, step by step in godliness.
We shall see in a future sermon from Genesis 22 , that Abraham's faith and confidence in God will have grown significantly by the time that Isaac has been born.
We have previously seen that Abraham’s spiritual walk with God (Chapters 12 -25) is a series of ups and downs. Our walk with God – our experience of sanctification is like climbing one of our famous Namibian sand dunes … three steps forward, one step back. But at least there is progress, and that is what we see essentially in Abraham’s life. Nothing in the Genesis narrative gives us the indication that Abraham was a perfect man in himself. What we do see however is a wonderful example of a man chosen and loved by God and therefore kept by the grace of God, and by this grace he was always advancing with God. Essentially, Abraham grew through his failures, and not because he was a good learner, but because God was so very gracious to him.
It is significant to note that God seldom intervened when His chosen people, and particularly his leaders were about to make mistakes. He allowed them to fail, but because of His love for them He was always ready to redeem them, and so they did grow and grace and faith. As already mentioned, the radical faith of Abraham in the 22nd Chapter of Genesis shall humble us greatly. And so Abraham’s understanding of God was not merely a theoretical thing. He did not learn God from books. He learned God from experience. Abraham learned the painful way that shortcut’s did not ultimately make things easier for him. In the struggles with childlessness, the birth of Ishmael did not bring about a solution. In fact the shortcut had made things more difficult. Obedience does not come naturally to fallen people. We will try anything before we trust God and His Word. And it does us no good. If it were not for the great grace of God, none of us would stand!
So, then let us trace the developments as they unfold in this chapter:
(i) Vv.1-2 : Abraham's deception of Abimelech
We are not told why Abraham moved away from Mamre, but in all likelihood the memories associated with God's judgment against Sodom had something to do with it. Should he have moved away, from Mamre near Hebron, in the Promised Land where he had built an altar to the LORD (13:18) in the first place?
All we know is that by moving away he moves to renewed trouble, renewed temptations, when he moves away from his spiritual haven into the territory of Abimelech, whose kingdom is located on the southern boundaries of Israel, towards the desert, the Negev. There is a spiritual lesson here for all of us. One of our great temptations in this life is to give way to our fear and insecurity, and with it the associated thought that the grass is greener on the other side. We tend to move from our fruitful and familiar place far too soon when we sense discouragement, and we get ourselves into sticky situations. The safest and best place is close to the altar of God - close to the people of God, close to the church. Moving into pagan territory is associated with many temptations , as we see here
In Chapter 20 we find a repetition of a spiritual problem found in Chapter 12:10-20. Abraham and Sarah were on the move, and as they moved through different kingdoms Abraham feared for his own life, (“They will kill me” - 12:12; 20:11), and that for a very strange and unusual reason. He feared for his life on account of his wife Sarah, who must have been a particularly attractive woman, even in her older years. In those years of the patriarchs, people lived much longer than they do today. The genetic material was purer, because the effects of the fall had not yet taken its full toll. Abraham feared for his own life on account of beautiful Sarah. He failed to trust God for His protection against the covetous heart of Pharaoh with respect to Sarah in Chapter 12. And so it is again here with Abimelech of Gerar in Chapter 20 who took Sarah into his Harem. The problem was that Abraham told both men a lie. He told them that she was his sister , which was true, but it was half true, and a half truth is also a lie. He really struggled to trust God in these situations.
And it was a terrible thing to do to Sarah at this time – the year before the promised child was to be born to them. But you see, there is much more going on here than meets the eye. The world , the flesh and the devil conspire to keep the Messianic line going , and in this Abraham own urge towards self –preservation, is rooted in a much more idolatrous problem than that : GOD CAN’T BE TRUSTED IN MY SITUATION. I HAVE TO SEE MYSELF THROUGH THIS. I AM IN CHARGE! This is the lie by which Satan originally tempted Eve.
This really begs for further thought. Abraham, highly esteemed in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the so called Faith Chapter, fails to trust in God. How then can God continue to love this man? The answer is important! God had declared Abraham righteous. He had sovereignly chosen Abraham. God had justified Abraham, but he had not yet been delivered from his body of sin, and from his sinful environment, and from the influences of Satan. And so Abraham provides Paul the perfect example of a sinner saved by grace and not by Abraham's perfect righteousness. We know he wasn’t! Right now he is not trusting God. Right now he is lying. Right now he is putting his wife into a very difficult spot. And therefore there was another basis that commended Abraham to God. Thank God for His free Grace!
(ii) Vv.3-7: God comes to Abimelech in a dream and reveals to him what has happened and what he must do.
God’s grace becomes immediately visible as God speaks to Abimelech in a dream. God will not allow His promises to and through Abraham and Sarah to be thwarted. They are crucial instruments in the fulfillment of the Messianic line. And so the grace of God intervenes, when all seems lost.
Abimelech of course has no clue that Sarah was not Abraham’s sister but his wife and he claims innocence in the matter. But ignorance has never been an excuse in the eyes of God and the law. Abimelech is being called to account for coveting the wife of another man, and God is threatening to kill him. We find here an ironic contrast between the relatively righteous behaviour of a pagan, Abimelech, and of Abraham, a so called friend of God. And ultimately, the difference between the two men is not their relative righteousness, but the grace of God, and the position and promises that God has assigned to Abraham. The glory of God is at stake here. And so Abraham is what he is , by the grace of God and for the glory of God . There is nothing meritorious in Abraham himself.
And s o God says to Abimelech here, that Abraham is a prophet, a spokesman , a mouthpiece of God. This is first time that the word prophet is used in the scriptures. Abraham is called the prophet of the Lord, not so much because he has the powers to foretell the future, but because Abraham has a special relationship with God, and this is highlighted in his intercession at the end of the chapter.
(iii) Vv. 4-13: Abimelech confronts Abraham.
Abraham's sinful heart is exposed by Abimelech. Abraham makes three pathetic excuses to Abimelech.
· v.11 There is no fear of God in this place – which is not true. God has just caused Abimelech to be very afraid .
· v.12 Sarah is technically my sister. Yes, that is true – but she is also his covenant wife.
· v. 13. “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house I said to her , “This kindness you must do to me: at every place to which we come , say of me , he is my brother.” He says God has caused me to wander like this, and “Sarah and I had this prior arrangement” ! He’s blame-shifting and he is not taking responsibility for his cowardice !
(iv) Vv. 14-18 : Abraham intercedes for Abimelech.
God in His grace uses Abraham for His glory and in spite of himself. Abimelech’s (unknowing) sin is exposed in turn, and God is gracious to forgive this pagan king who has sinned in ignorance. Abraham is appointed by God to pray for Abimelech and for his people who have been afflicted by God for this sin, and as a result of his command and Abraham's prayer to the God who has called him and commanded him , God heals Abimelech and his people.
Isn't that an example of God in His grace using us for His glory in spite of ourselves, in spite of our sin? And what is amazing is that God never mentions Abraham’s unfaithfulness again – not in those texts and expositions concerning Abraham in Romans 4, not in Galatians 3 &4, and not in Hebrews 11. In fact in Hebrews 11 Abraham is highly commended for having an extraordinary faith. Never does God refer to his past sin again. Again we become aware of God’s amazing grace in Christ, and in the end we do see that Abraham grew through failure, not because of his own efforts, but because of the amazing grace of God.
Never stop magnifying the grace of God, and never cease to wonder that God loves you despite your many sins and trespasses. God loves you in the Christ in whom you have placed your faith and hope. God loves you because of Jesus who has kept the law for you, and who has forgiven you all yours sins and iniquities. And the reason why you can grow in grace at all is because God is at work in you even in your failures.
And Jesus, because of His work on the cross is so very worthy of our praise! And with that thought we now come to the Communion Table spread for us. Amen!
 lit. "father" and "king," and may be interpreted in a variety of ways, including "Father-King", "My father is king," or "Father of a king. In the Pentateuch, it is used as a title for kings in the land of Canaan. Abimelech was probably a dynastic title. We see that name being applied to another king of Gerar in Genesis 26 : 8 in the time of Isaac. It is also applied to Achish, the king of Gath, in I Samuel 21: 10 cf. Psalm 34.